Swan song, p.5
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       Swan Song, p.5

           Robert McCammon
 
Chapter 5

 

  Sister Creep stayed crouched over the puddle like a beast protecting a water hole. She'd found shelter from the pouring rain in the hulk of a taxi and had tried to sleep there through the long and miserable night, but her few minutes of rest had been disturbed by hallucinations of the thing with the melting face in the theater. as soon as the black sky had lightened to the color of river mud, she'd left her shelter - trying very hard not to look at the corpse in the front seat - and gone in search of food and water. The rain had slowed to an occasional drizzle of needles, but the air was getting colder; the chill felt like early November, and she was shivering in her drenched rags. The puddle of rainwater beneath her face smelled like ashes and brimstone, but she was so dried out and thirsty that she'd been about to plunge her face in and open her mouth.

  "Busted water main's shootin' up a geyser back that way," the man said, and he motioned toward what Sister Creep thought was north. "Looks like Old Faithful. "

  She leaned back from the contaminated puddle. Thunder growled in the distance like a passing freight train, and there was no way to see the sun through the low, muddy clouds. "You find anything to eati" she asked him through swollen lips.

  "a couple of onion rolls, in what was a bakery, I guess. Couldn't keep 'em down, though. My wife says I'm the world's champion upchucker. " He put a blistered hand on his belly. "Got ulcers and a nervous stomach. "

  Sister Creep stood up. She was about three inches taller than he. "I'm thirsty," she said. "Will you take me to the wateri"

  He looked up at the sky, cocking his head toward the sound of thunder, then stood dumbly regarding the ruins around them. "I'm tryin' to find a phone or a policeman," he said. "I been lookin' all night. Can't find either one when you need 'em, righti"

  "Something terrible's happened," Sister Creep told him. "I don't think there are any phones or cops anymore. "

  "I gotta find a phone!" the man said urgently. "See, my wife's gonna wonder what happened to me! I gotta call her and let her know. . . I'm. . . okay. . . " His voice trailed off, and he stared at a pair of legs that protruded stiffly from a pile of twisted iron and concrete slabs. "Oh," he whispered, and Sister Creep saw his eyes glaze over like fog on window glass. He's crazy as hell, she thought, and she started walking north, climbing up a high ridge of rubble.

  In a few minutes she heard the fat little man breathing heavily as he caught up with her. "See," he said, "I'm not from around here. I'm from Detroit. Got a shoe store at Eastland Shopping Center. I'm here for a convention, seei If my wife hears about this on the radio, she's gonna worry herself sick!"

  Sister Creep grunted in reply. Her mind was on finding water.

  "The name's Wisco," he told her. "arthur Wisco. artie for short. I gotta find a phone! See, I lost my wallet and my clothes and every damned thing! Me and some of the boys stayed out late the night before it happened. I was upchuckin' all over the place that mornin'. Missed my first two sales meetings and stayed in bed. I had the covers over my head, and all of a sudden there was a godawful light and a roarin', and my bed fell right through the floor! Hell, the whole hotel started shakin' to pieces, and I crashed through a hole in the lobby and ended up in the basement, still in my bed! When I dug myself out of there, the hotel was gone. " He gave a crazy little giggle. "Jesus, the whole block was gone!"

  "a lot of blocks are gone. "

  "Yeah. Well, my feet were cut up pretty bad. How 'bout thati Me, artie Wisco, with no shoes on my feet! So I had to take a pair of shoes off a. . . " He trailed off again. They climbed nearer to the top of the ridge. "Bastards are way too small," he said. "But my feet are swollen up, too. I tell you, shoes are important! Where would people be without shoesi Now, take those sneakers you got on. They're cheap, and they ain't gonna last you very - "

  Sister Creep turned toward him. "Will you shut upi" she demanded, and then she kept climbing.

  He lasted about forty seconds. "My wife said I shouldn't come on this trip. Said I'd regret spendin' the money. I'm not a rich man. But I said, hell, it's once a year! Once a year in the Big apple ain't too - "

  "Everything's gone!" Sister Creep screamed at him. "You crazy fool! Look around!"

  artie stood motionless, staring at her, and when he opened his mouth again his tight, strained face looked about to rip. "Please," he whispered. "Please don't. . . "

  The guy's hanging on by his fingernails, she realized. There was no need to chop his fingers off. She shook her head. The important thing was to keep from falling to pieces. Everything was gone, but she still had a choice: she could either sit down here in the rubble and wait to die, or she could find that water. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't sleep too well last night. "

  His expression slowly began to register life again. "It's gettin' cold," he observed. "Look! I can see my breath. " He exhaled ghostly air. "Here, you need this more than I do. " He started to take his mink coat off. "Listen, if my wife ever finds out I was wearin' a mink, I'll never get off the hook!" She waved the coat away when he offered it, but artie persisted. "Hey, don't worry! There're plenty where this one came from. " Finally, just to get them moving once more, Sister Creep let him put the tattered coat on her, and she ran her hand across the scorched mink.

  "My wife says I can be a real gentleman when I wanna be," artie told her. "Hey, what happened to your necki"

  Sister Creep touched her throat. "Somebody took something that belonged to me," she replied, and then she clasped the mink coat around her shoulders to ward off the chill and continued climbing. It was the first time she'd ever worn mink. When she reached the top of the ridge she had the wild urge to shout, "Hey, all you poor, dead sinners! Roll over and take a look at a lady!"

  The decimated city stretched out in all directions. Sister Creep started down the other side of the ridge, with artie Wisco following close behind. He was still jabbering about Detroit and shoes and finding a phone, but Sister Creep tuned him out. "Show me the water," she told him when they reached the bottom. He stood looking around for a minute, as if trying to decide where to grab a bus. "This way," he finally said, and they had to climb again over the rough terrain of broken masonry, smashed cars and twisted metal. So many corpses, in varying degrees of disfigurement, lay underfoot that Sister Creep stopped flinching when she stepped on one.

  at the top, artie pointed. "There it is. " Down in the valley of wreckage below was a fountain of water spewing up from a fissure in the concrete. In the sky to the east, a network of red lightning streaks shot through the clouds, followed by a dull, reverberating explosion.

  They descended into the valley and walked over piles of what had been civilization's treasures two days before: burned paintings still in their gilded frames; half-melted television sets and stereos; the mangled remains of sterling silver and gold punchbowls, cups, knives and forks, candelabras, music boxes, and champagne buckets; shards of what had been priceless pottery, antique vases, art Deco statues, african sculpture and Waterford crystal.

  The lightning flashed again, nearer this time, and the red glow sparked off thousands of bits of jewelry scattered in the wreckage - necklaces and bracelets, rings and pins. She found a sign sticking up from the debris - and she almost laughed, but she feared that if she started she might laugh on until her brains burst. The sign said Fifth avenue.

  "Seei" artie held up mink coats in both hands. "I told you there were more!" He was standing knee-deep in blackened finery: leopardskin cloaks, ermine robes, sealskin jackets. He chose the best coat he could find and shrugged painfully into it.

  Sister Creep paused to poke through a pile of leather bags and briefcases. She found a large bag with a good, solid strap and slipped it over her shoulder. Now she no longer felt quite as naked. She looked up at the black faiade of the building that the leather items had blown out of, and she could just make out the remnants of a sign: GUCCI. It was probably the best bag she'd ever had.

  They were almost to the geyser of water wh
en a flash of lightning made things on the ground glint like embers. Sister Creep stopped, leaned down and picked one of them up. It was a piece of glass the size of her fist; it had been melted into a lump, and imbedded in it was a scatter of small jewels - rubies, burning dark red in the gloom. She looked around herself and saw that the lumps of glass lay everywhere in the debris, all of them formed into strange shapes by the heat, as if fashioned by a maniacal glassblower. There was nothing left of the building that stood before her but a fragment of green marble wall. But she looked to the ruins of the structures that stood off to the left, and she squinted to see through the twilight. On an arch of battered marble were letters: TIF aNY.

  Tiffany's, Sister Creep realized. and. . . if that was where Tiffany's had been. . . then she was standing right in front of. . .

  "Oh, no," she whispered as tears sprang to her eyes. "Oh, no. . . oh, no. . . "

  She was standing in front of what had been her magic place - the Steuben Glass shop - and all that remained of the beautiful, sculptured treasures were the misshapen lumps at her feet. The place where she'd come to dream at the displays of cool glass was gone, ripped from its foundations and scattered. The sight of this waste against the memory of what had been was as nerve-shattering as if the door of Heaven had been slammed shut in her face.

  She stood motionless, except for the tears crawling over her blistered cheeks.

  "Look at this!" artie called. He picked up a deformed octagon of glass full of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. "Have you ever seen anythin' like this beforei Look! They're all over the damned place!" He reached into the debris and brought up handfuls of melted glass studded with precious jewels. "Hey!" He laughed like the bray of a mule. "We're rich, lady! What're we gonna buy firsti" Still laughing, he threw the pieces of glass into the air. "anything you want, lady!" he shouted. "I'll buy you anything you want!"

  The lightning flashed, streaked across the sky, and Sister Creep saw the entire remaining wall of the Steuben Glass shop explode in dazzling bursts of color: ruby red, deep emerald, midnight sapphire blue, smoky topaz and diamond white. She approached the wall, her shoes crunching on grit, reached out and touched it; the wall was full of jewels, and Sister Creep realized that the treasures of Tiffany's, Fortunoff's and Cartier's must've blown out of the buildings, whirled in a fantastic hurricane of gemstones along Fifth avenue - and mingled with the melting glass sculptures of the magic place. The hundreds of jewels in the scorched green marble wall held the light for a few seconds, and then the glow faded like multicolored lamps going out.

  Oh, the waste, she thought. Oh, the awful, awful waste. . .

  She stepped back, her eyes stinging with tears, and one foot slipped on loose glass. She went down on her rear end and sat there with no more will to get up again.

  "You okayi" artie walked carefully toward her. "Did you hurt yourself, ladyi"

  She didn't answer. She was tired and used up, and she decided she was going to stay right there in the ruins of the magic place and maybe rest for a while.

  "aren't you gonna get upi The water's just over there. "

  "Leave me alone," she told him listlessly. "Go away. "

  "Go awayi Lady. . . where the hell am I gonna goi"

  "I don't care. I don't give a shit. Not a single. . . rotten. . . shit. " She picked up a handful of melted glass and ashes and let the mess fall through her fingers. What was the use of taking one more stepi The little man was right. There was nowhere to go. Everything was gone, burned and ruined. "No hope," she whispered, and she dug her hand deeply into the ashes beside her. "No hope. "

  Her fingers closed around more junk glass, and she brought it up to see what kind of garbage her dreams had been twisted into.

  "What the hell is thati" artie asked.

  In Sister Creep's hand was a doughnut-shaped ring of glass with a hole at its center about six or seven inches around. The ring itself was about two inches thick, and maybe seven inches in diameter. Jutting up around the top of the ring at irregular intervals were five glass spikes, one ice-pick thin, a second about as wide as a knife blade, a third hooked, and the other two just plain ugly. Trapped within the glass were hundreds of various-sized dark ovals and squares. Strange, spider web lines interconnected deep within the glass.

  "It's shit," she muttered, and she started to toss it back on the trash heap when the lightning flashed again.

  The ring of glass suddenly exploded into fiery light, and for an instant Sister Creep thought it had burst into flame in her hand. She howled and dropped it, and artie yelled, "Jesus!"

  The light went out.

  Sister Creep's hand was trembling. She looked at her palm and fingers to make sure she hadn't been burned; there'd been no heat, just that blinding flare of light. She could still see it, pulsing behind her eyeballs.

  She reached toward it, then pulled her hand back again. artie came closer and bent down a few feet away.

  Sister Creep let her fingers graze the glass before she jerked her hand away once more. The glass was smooth, like cool velvet. She let her fingers linger on it, and then she gripped it in her hand and picked it up from the ashes.

  The circle of glass remained dark.

  Sister Creep stared at it and felt her heart pounding.

  Deep within the glass circle, there was a flicker of crimson.

  It began to grow like a flame, to spread to other points within the ring, pulsing, pulsing, getting stronger and brighter by the second.

  a ruby the size of Sister Creep's thumbnail flared bright red; another smaller one winked with light, like a match glowing in the dark. a third ruby burned like a comet, and then a fourth and a fifth, embedded deep inside the cool glass, began to come to life. The red glow pulsed, pulsed - and Sister realized its rhythm was in time with her own heartbeat.

  More rubies glinted, flared, burned like coals. a diamond suddenly glowed a clear blue-white, and a four-carat sapphire exploded into dazzling cobalt fire. as Sister Creep's heartbeat quickened, so did the bursting into light of the hundreds of jewels trapped within the circle of glass. an emerald glowed cool green, a pear-shaped diamond burned white hot and incandescent, a topaz pulsed a dark reddish brown, and now the rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds by the dozen were awakening with light; the light rippled, traveling along the spider web lines that wove all through the glass. The lines were threads of precious metals - gold, silver and platinum - that had melted and been trapped as well, and as they ignited like sizzling fuses they set off still more explosions of emerald, topaz and amethyst's deep purple.

  The entire ring of glass glowed like a multicolored circle of fire, yet there was no heat under Sister Creep's fingers. It was pulsating rapidly now, as was her heartbeat, and the vibrant, stunning colors grew still brighter.

  She had never seen anything like this - never, not even in the display windows of any store along Fifth avenue. Jewels of incredible color and clarity were caught within the glass, some of them upwards of five and six carats, some only tiny specks that nevertheless burned with ferocious energy. The glass circle pulsed. . . pulsed. . . pulsed. . .

  "Ladyi" artie whispered, his swollen eyes shining with light "Can I. . . hold iti"

  She was reluctant to give it up, but he stared at it with such wonder and longing that she could not refuse him.

  His burned fingers closed around it, and as it left Sister Creep's grasp the glass circle's pulse changed, picking up artie Wisco's heartbeat. The colors subtly changed as well, as more deep blues and greens swelled and the white-hot glare of diamonds and rubies faded a fraction. artie caressed it, and its velvety surface reminded him of the way his wife's skin had felt when she was young and they were newlyweds just starting out. He thought of how much he loved his wife, and how he longed for her. He had been wrong, he realized in that instant. There was somewhere to go. Home, he thought. I've got to get back home.

  after a few minutes he carefully gave the object back t
o Sister Creep. It changed again, and she sat holding it between her hands and peering into its beautiful depths.

  "Home," artie whispered, and the woman looked up. artie's mind would not let go of the memory of his wife's soft skin. "I've got to get back home," he said, his voice getting stronger. He suddenly blinked as if he'd been slapped across the face, and Sister Creep saw tears glint in his eyes.

  "There. . . ain't no more phones, are therei" he asked. "and no policemen, either. "

  "No," she said. "I don't think so. "

  "Oh. " He nodded, looked at her and then back at the pulsating colors. "You. . . ought to go home, too," he said.

  She smiled grimly. "I don't have anywhere to go. "

  "Why don't you go with me, theni"

  She laughed. "Go with youi Mister, haven't you noticed the buses and cabs are a little off schedule todayi"

  "I've got shoes on my feet. So do you. My legs still work, and yours do, too. " He pulled his gaze away from the ring of fiery light and peered around at the destruction as if seeing it clearly for the first time. "Dear God," he said. "Oh, dear God, whyi"

  "I don't think. . . God had much to do with this," Sister Creep said. "I remember. . . I prayed for the Rapture, and I prayed for Judgment Day - but I never prayed for anything like this. Never. "

  artie nodded toward the glass ring. "You oughta hold onto that thing, lady. You found it, so I guess it's yours. It might be worth something someday. " He shook his head in awe. "That's not junk, lady," he said. "I don't know what it is, but it's sure not junk. " He suddenly stood up and lifted the collar of his mink coat around his neck. "Well. . . I hope you make put okay, lady. " With one last longing gaze at the glass ring, he turned and started walking.

  "Hey!" Sister stood up, too. "Where do you think you're goingi"

  "I told you," he replied without looking back, "I gotta get home. "

  "are you crazyi Detroit's not just around the block!"

  He didn't stop. He's nuts! she thought. Crazier'n I am! She put the circle of glass into her new Gucci bag, and as she took her hand away from it the pulsing ceased and the colors instantly faded, as if the thing were going to sleep again. She walked after artie. "Hey! Wait! What are you going to do about food and wateri"

  "I guess I'll find it when I need it! If I can't find it, I'll do without! What choice do I have, ladyi"

  "Not much," she agreed.

  He stopped and faced her. "Right. Hell, I don't know if I'll get there. I don't even know if I'll get out of this damned junkyard! But this ain't my home. If a person's gotta die, he oughta die tryin' to go home to somebody he loves, don't you thinki" He shrugged. "Maybe I'll find some more people. Maybe I'll find a car. If you want to stay here, that's your business, but artie Wisco's got shoes on his feet, and artie Wisco's walkin'. " He waved and started off again.

  He's not crazy anymore, she thought.

  a cold rain began falling, the drops black and oily. Sister Creep opened her bag again and touched the misshapen glass circle with one finger to see what would happen.

  a single sapphire blazed to life, and she was reminded of the spinning blue light flashing in her face. a memory was close - very close - but before she could grasp it, it had streaked away again. It was something, she knew, that she was not yet ready to remember.

  She lifted her finger, and the sapphire went dark.

  One step, she told herself. One step and then the next gets you where you're going.

  But what if you don't know where to goi

  "Hey!" she shouted at artie. "at least look for an umbrella! and try to find a bag like the one I've got, so you can put food and stuff in it!" Christ! she thought. This guy wouldn't make it a mile! She ought to go with him, she decided, if only to keep him from breaking his neck. "Wait for me!" she shouted. and then she walked a few yards to the geyser of the broken water main and stood under it, letting the water wash the dust, ashes and blood off her. She opened her mouth and drank until her stomach sloshed. Now hunger took thirst's place. Maybe she could find something to eat and maybe not, she considered. But at least she was no longer thirsty. One step, she thought. One step at a time.

  artie was waiting for her. Sister Creep's instincts caused her to gather up a few smaller chunks of glass with jewels embedded in them, and she wrapped them in a ragged blue scarf and put them into her Gucci bag. She nosed around the wreckage, a bag lady's paradise, and found a pretty jade box, but it played a tune when she lifted the lid and the sweet music in the midst of so much death saddened her. She returned the box to the broken concrete.

  Then she started walking toward artie Wisco through the chilly rain, and she left the ruins of the magic place behind.

  Seventeen

  "Gopher's in the hole!" PawPaw Briggs raved. "Lord God, we come a cropper!"

  Josh Hutchins had no idea what time it was, or how long they'd been there; he'd been sleeping a lot and having awful dreams about Rose and the boys running before a tornado of fire. He was amazed that he could still breathe; the air was stale, but it seemed okay. Josh expected to close his eyes very soon and not awaken again. The pain of his burns was bearable as long as he stayed still. He lay listening to the old man babble on, and Josh thought that suffocating probably wouldn't be such a bad way to die; maybe it was only like getting the hiccups just before you went to sleep, and you weren't really aware that your lungs were hitching for oxygen. He felt sorriest for the little girl. So young, he thought. So young. Didn't even have a chance to grow up.

  Well, he decided, I'm going back to sleep now. Maybe this would be the last time. He thought of those people in the wrestling arena at Concordia and wondered how many of them were dead or dying right now, this minute. Poor Johnny Lee Richwine! Busted leg one day, and this the next! Shit. It's not fair. . . not fair at all. . .

  Something tugged at his shirt. The movement sent little panics of pain shooting through his nerves.

  "Misteri" Swan asked. She'd heard his breathing and had crawled to him through the darkness. "Can you hear me, misteri" She tugged at his shirt again for good measure.

  "Yes," he answered. "I can hear you. What is iti"

  "My mama's sick. Can you help heri"

  Josh sat upright. "What's wrong with heri"

  "She's breathing funny. Please come help her. "

  The child's voice was strained, but she wasn't giving in to tears. Tough little kid, Josh thought. "Okay. Take my hand and lead me to her. " He held his hand out, and after a few seconds she found it in the darkness and clenched three of his fingers in her hand.

  Swan led him, both of them crawling, across the basement to where her mother lay in the dirt. Swan had been asleep, curled close to her mother, when she was awakened by a noise like the rasp of a rusted hinge. Her mother's body was hot and damp, but Darleen was shivering. "Mamai" Swan whispered. "Mama, I brought the giant to help you. "

  "I just need to rest, honey. " The voice was drowsy. "I'm okay. Don't you worry about me. "

  "are you hurting anywherei" Josh asked her.

  "Shitfire, what a question. I'm hurtin' all over. Christ, I don't know what hit me. I was feeling' fine just a while ago - like I had a sunburn, is all. But, shit! I've had worse sunburns than this!" She swallowed thickly. "I sure could use a beer right now. "

  "There might be something down here to drink. " Josh started searching, uncovering more dented cans. Without a light, though, he couldn't tell what they contained. He was thirsty and hungry, too, and he knew the child must be. PawPaw could surely use some water. He found a can of something that had burst open and was leaking out, and he tasted the liquid. Sugary peach juice. a can of peaches. "Here. " He held the can to the woman's mouth so she could drink.

  Darleen slurped at it, then pushed it weakly away. "What're you tryin' to do, poison mei I said I need a beer!"

  "Sorry. This is the best I can do for now. " He gave the can to Swan and told her to drink.

  "When're
they comin' to dig us out of this shitholei" Darleen asked.

  "I don't know. Maybe. . . " He paused. "Maybe soon. "

  "Jesus! I feel like. . . one side of me is bein' cooked and the other's in a deep freeze. It hit me all of a sudden. "

  "You'll be all right," Josh said; it was ridiculous, but he didn't know what else to say. He sensed the child close to him, silent and listening. She knows, he thought. "Just rest, and you'll get your strength back. "

  "See, Swani I told you I was gonna be fine. "

  Josh could do nothing else. He took the can of peaches from Swan and crawled over to where PawPaw lay raving. "Come a cropper!" PawPaw babbled. "Oh, Lord. . . did you find the keyi Now how'm I gonna start a truck without a keyi"

  Josh put an arm under the old man's head, tilting it up and then putting the broken can to his lips. PawPaw was both shivering and burning up with fever. "Drink it," Josh said, and the old man was as obedient as an infant with a bottle.

  "Misteri are we going to get out of herei"

  Josh hadn't realized the little girl was nearby. Her voice was still calm, and she was whispering so her mother couldn't hear. "Sure," he replied. The child was silent, and again Josh had the feeling that even in the dark she'd seen through his lie. "I don't know," he amended. "Maybe. Maybe not. It depends. "

  "Depends on whati"

  Not going to let me off the hook, are youi he thought. "I guess it depends on what's left outside. Do you understand what's happenedi"

  "Something blew up," she answered.

  "Right. But a lot of other places might have blown up, too. Whole cities. There might be. . . " He hesitated. Go ahead and say it. You might as well get it out. "There might be millions of people dead, or trapped just like we are. So there might not be anybody left to get us out. "

  She paused for a moment. Then she replied, "That's not what I asked. I asked: are we going to get out of herei"

  Josh realized she was asking if they were going to try to get themselves out, instead of waiting for someone else to come help them. "Well," he said, "if we had a bulldozer handy, I'd say yes. Otherwise, I don't think we're going anywhere anytime soon. "

  "My mama's real sick," Swan said, and this time her voice cracked. "I'm afraid. "

  "So am I," Josh admitted. The little girl sobbed just once, and then she stopped as if she'd pulled herself together with tremendous willpower. Josh reached out and found her arm. Blisters broke on her skin. Josh flinched and withdrew his hand. "How about youi" he asked her. "are you hurtingi"

  "My skin hurts. It feels like needles and pins. and my stomach's sick. I had to throw up a while ago, but I did it in the corner. "

  "Yeah, I feel kind of sick myself. " He felt a pressing need to urinate as well, and he was going to have to figure out a makeshift sanitation system. They had plenty of canned food and fruit juices, and no telling what else was buried around them in the dirt. Stop it! he thought, because he'd allowed himself a flicker of hope. The air's going to be gone soon! There's no way we can survive down here!

  But he knew also that they were in the only place that could have sheltered them from the blast. With all that dirt above them, the radiation might not get through. Josh was tired and his bones ached, but he no longer felt the urge to lie down and die; if he did, he thought, the little girl's fate would be sealed, too. But if he fought off the weariness and got to work organizing the cans of food, he might be able to keep them all alive for. . . how longi he wondered. One more dayi Three morei a weeki

  "How old are youi" he asked.

  "I'm nine," she answered.

  "Nine," he repeated softly, and he shook his head. Rage and pity warred in his soul. a nine-year-old child ought to be playing in the summer sun. a nine-year-old child shouldn't be down in a dark basement with one foot in the grave. It wasn't fair! Damn it to Hell, it wasn't right!

  "What's your namei"

  It was a minute before he could find his voice. "Josh. and yours is Swani"

  "Sue Wanda. But my mama calls me Swan. How'd you get to be a gianti"

  There were tears in his eyes, but he smiled anyway. "I guess I ate my mama's cornbread when I was about your age. "

  "Cornbread made you a gianti"

  "Well, I was always big. I used to play some football - first at auburn University, then for the New Orleans Saints. "

  "Do you stilli"

  "Nope. I'm a. . . I was a wrestler," he said. "Professional wrestling. I was the bad guy. "

  "Oh. " Swan thought about that. She recalled that one of her many uncles, Uncle Chuck, used to like to go to the wrestling matches in Wichita and watched them on TV, too. "Did you like thati Being the bad guy, I meani"

  "It's kind of a game, really. I just acted bad. and I don't know if I liked it or not. It was just something I started do - "

  "Gopher's in the hole!" PawPaw said. "Lordy, lookit him go!"

  "Why does he keep talking about a gopheri" Swan asked.

  "He's hurt. He doesn't know what he's saying. " PawPaw rambled on about finding his bedroom slippers and something about the crops needing rain, then he lapsed again into silence. Heat radiated off the old man's body as if from an open oven, and Josh knew he couldn't last much longer. God only knew what looking into that blast had done inside his skull.

  "Mama said we were going to Blakeman," Swan said, pulling her attention away from the old man. She knew he was dying. "She said we were going home. Where were you goingi"

  "Garden City. I was supposed to wrestle there. "

  "Is that your homei"

  "No. My home's down in alabama - a long, long way from here. "

  "Mama said we were going to go see my granddaddy. He lives in Blakeman. Does your family live in alabamai"

  He thought of Rose and his two sons. But they were part of someone else's life now - if indeed they were still alive. "I don't have any family," Josh replied.

  "Don't you have anybody who loves youi" Swan asked.

  "No," he said. "I don't think so. " He heard Darleen moan, and he said, "You'd better see to your mother, huhi"

  "Yes, sir. " Swan started to crawl away, but then she looked back into the darkness where the black giant was. "I knew something terrible was going to happen," she said. "I knew it the night we left Uncle Tommy's trailer. I tried to tell my mama, but she didn't understand. "

  "How did you knowi"

  "The fireflies told me," she said. "I saw it in their lights. "

  "Sue Wandai" Darleen called weakly. "Swani Where are youi"

  Swan said, "Here, Mama," and she crawled back to her mother's side.

  The fireflies told her, Josh thought. Right. at least the little girl had a strong imagination. That was good; sometimes the imagination could be a useful place to hide in when the going got rough.

  But he suddenly remembered the cloud of locusts that had flown through his car. "Been flyin' out of the fields by the thousands for the last two, three days," PawPaw had told him. "Kinda peculiar. "

  Had the locusts known something was about to happen in those cornfieldsi Josh wondered. Had they been able to sense disaster - maybe smell it on the wind, or in the earth itselfi

  He turned his mind to more important matters. First he had to find a corner to pee into before his bladder burst. He'd never had to crouch and pee at the same time before. But if the air was all right and they lasted for a while, something was going to have to be done with their waste. He didn't like the idea of crawling through his own, much less anyone else's. The floor was of concrete, but it had cracked wide open during the tremors; he recalled he'd felt a garden hoe in the debris that might be useful in digging a latrine.

  and he was going to search the basement from one end to the other on his hands and knees, gathering up all the cans and everything else he could find. They obviously had plenty of food, and the cans would contain enough water and juices to keep them for a while. It was light he wanted more than anything else, and he'd never kno
wn how much he could miss electricity.

  He crawled into a far corner to relieve himself. Going to be a long time before your next bath, he thought. Won't be needing sunglasses anytime soon, either.

  He winced. The urine burned like battery acid spewing out of him.

  But I'm alive! he reassured himself. There might not be a whole hell of a lot to live for, but I'm alive. Tomorrow I may be dead, but today I'm alive and pissing on my knees.

  and for the first time since the blast he allowed himself to dream that somehow - some way - he might live to see the outside world again.

  Eighteen

  The dark came with no warning. December's chill was in the July air, and a black, icy rain continued to fall on the ruins of Manhattan.

  Sister Creep and artie Wisco stood together atop a ridge of wreckage and looked west. Fires were still burning across the Hudson River, in the oil refineries of Hoboken and Jersey City - but other than the orange flames, the west was without light. Raindrops pattered on the warped, gaily colored umbrella that artie had found in what remained of a sporting goods store. The store had also yielded up other treasures - a Day-Glo orange nylon knapsack strapped to artie's back, and a new pair of sneakers on Sister Creep's feet. In the Gucci bag around her shoulder was a charred loaf of rye bread, two cans of anchovies with the handy keys that rolled the lids back, a package of ham slices that had cooked in the plastic, and a miraculously unbroken bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale that had survived the destruction of a deli. It had taken them several hours to cover the terrain between upper Fifth avenue and their first destination, the Lincoln Tunnel. But the tunnel itself had collapsed, and the river had flooded right up to the toll gates along with a wave of crushed cars, concrete slabs and corpses.

  They had turned away in silence. Sister Creep had led artie southward, toward the Holland Tunnel and another route under the river. Darkness had fallen before they'd made it, and now they'd have to wait until morning to find out if the Holland had collapsed as well. The last street sign that Sister Creep had found said West 22nd, but it was lying on its side in the ashes and could've blown far from where that street had actually been.

  "Well," artie said quietly, staring across the river, "don't look like anybody's home, does iti"

  "No. " Sister Creep shivered and drew the mink coat tighter around her. "It's gotten colder. We're going to have to find some shelter. " She looked through the darkness at the vague shapes of the few structures that hadn't been toppled. any one of them might fall on their heads, but Sister Creep didn't like the way the temperature was dropping. "Come on," she said, and she started walking toward one of the buildings. artie followed her without question.

  During their journey they had found only four other people who hadn't been killed in the detonation, and three of those had been so mangled they were very near death. The fourth was a terribly burned man in a pin-striped business suit who had howled like a dog when they'd approached and had scuttled back into a crevice to hide. So Sister Creep and artie had gone on, walking over so many bodies that the horror of death lost its impact; now they were shocked whenever they heard a groan in the rubble or, as had happened once, someone laughing and shrieking off in the distance. They had gone in the direction of the voice, but they'd seen no one living. The mad laughter haunted Sister Creep; it reminded her of the laughter she'd heard inside that theater, from the man with the burning hand.

  "There are others still alive out there," he'd said. "Waiting to die. It won't be long. Not long for you, either. "

  "We'll see about that, fucker," Sister Creep said.

  "Whati" artie asked.

  "Oh. Nothing. I was just. . . thinking. " Thinking, she realized. Thinking was not something she did much of. The last several years were blurred, and beyond those was a darkness broken only by the flashing blue light and the demon in the yellow raincoat. My real name's not Sister Creep! she thought suddenly. My real name is. . . but she didn't know what it was, and she didn't know who she was or where she'd come from. How did I get herei she asked herself, but she could provide no answer.

  They entered the remains of a gray stone building by climbing up a rubble heap and crawling through a hole in the wall. The interior was pitch dark and the air was dank and smoky, but at least they were within a windbreak. They groped their way along a tilting floor until they found a corner. When they'd gotten settled, Sister Creep reached into her bag to bring out the loaf of bread and the bottle of ginger ale. Her fingers grazed the circle of glass, which she'd wrapped up in a scorched striped shirt she'd taken off a mannequin. The other pieces of glass, wrapped in the blue scarf, were down at the bottom of the bag.

  "Here. " She tore off a piece of the bread and gave it to artie, then tore a piece for herself. There was only a burned taste, but it was better than nothing. She unscrewed the cap off the bottle of ginger ale, and the soda instantly foamed up and spewed everywhere. She quickly put it to her mouth, drank several swallows and passed the bottle to artie.

  "I hate ginger ale," artie said after he'd finished drinking, "but this is the best damned stuff I ever drank in my life. "

  "Don't drink it all. " She decided against opening the anchovies, because their saltiness would only make them more thirsty. The slices of ham were too precious to eat yet. She gave him another small bit of bread, took another for herself and put the loaf away.

  "Know what I had for dinner the night before it happenedi" artie asked her. "a steak. a big T-bone steak at a place on East Fiftieth. Then some of the guys and me started hittin' the bars. That was a night, I'll tell you! We had a helluva time!"

  "Good for you. "

  "Yeah. What were you doin' that nighti"

  "Nothing special," she said. "I was just around. "

  artie was quiet for awhile, chewing on his bread. Then he said, "I called my wife before I left the hotel. I guess I told her a whopper, 'cause I said I was just gonna go out and have a nice dinner and come back to bed. She said for me to be careful, and she said she loved me. I told her I loved her, and that I'd see her in a couple of days. " He was silent, and when he sighed Sister Creep heard his breath hitch. "Jesus," he whispered. "I'm glad I called her. I'm glad I got to hear her voice before it happened. Hey, lady - what if Detroit got hit, tooi"

  "Got hiti What do you mean, got hiti"

  "a nuclear bomb," he said. "What else do you think could've done thisi a nuclear bomb! Maybe more than one. The things probably fell all over the country! Probably hit all the cities, and Detroit, too!" His voice was getting hysterical, and he forced himself to wait until he was under control again. "Damned Russians bombed us, lady. Don't you read the papersi"

  "No. I don't. "

  "What've you been doin'i Livin' on Marsi anybody who reads the papers and watches the tube could've seen this shit comin'! The Russians bombed the hell out of us. . . and I guess we bombed the hell out of them, too. "

  a nuclear bombi she thought. She hardly remembered what that was; nuclear war was something she'd worried about in another life.

  "I hope - if they got Detroit - that she went fast. I mean, that's okay to hope for, isn't iti That she went fast, without paini"

  "Yes. I think that's all right. "

  "Is it. . . is it okay that I told her a liei It was a white lie. I didn't want her to be worried about me. She worries that I'm gonna drink too much and make a fool of myself. I can't hold my liquor too good. Is it okay that I told her a white lie that nighti"

  She knew he was begging her to say it was all right. "Sure," she told him. "a lot of people did worse things that night. She went to sleep without worrying, didn't - "

  Something sharp pricked Sister Creep's left cheek. "Don't move," a woman's voice warned. "Don't even breathe. " The voice shook; whoever was speaking was scared to death.

  "Who's therei" artie asked, startled almost out of his skin. "Hey, lady! You okayi"

  "I'm okay," Sister Creep answered. She reached up to her ch
eek and felt a jagged, knifelike piece of glass.

  "I said don't move!" The glass jabbed her. "How many are with youi"

  "Just one more. "

  "artie Wisco. My name's artie Wisco. Where are youi"

  There was a long pause. Then the woman said, "You've got foodi"

  "Yes. "

  "Water. " It was a man's voice this time, further to the left. "Have you got wateri"

  "Not water. Ginger ale. "

  "Let's see what they look like, Beth," the man said.

  a lighter's flame popped up, so bright in the darkness that Sister Creep had to close her eyes against the glare for a few seconds. The woman held the flame closer to Sister Creep's face, then toward artie. "I think they're all right," she told the man, who moved into the range of the light.

  Sister Creep could make out the woman crouched next to her. Her face was swollen and there was a gash across the bridge of her nose, but she appeared to be young, maybe in her mid-twenties, with a few remaining ringlets of curly light brown hair dangling from her blistered scalp. Her eyebrows had been burned off, and her dark blue eyes were puffy and bloodshot; she was a slim woman, and she wore a blue striped dress that was splotched with blood. Her long, frail arms seethed with blisters. Draped around her shoulders was what looked like part of a gold-colored curtain.

  The man wore the rags of a cop's uniform. He was older, possibly in his late thirties, and most of his dark, crewcut hair remained on the right side of his head; on the left, it had been burned away to raw scalp. He was a big, heavyset man, and his left arm was wrapped up and supported in a sling made of that same coarse gold material.

  "My God," artie said. "Lady, we found a cop!"

  "Where'd you two come fromi" Beth asked her.

  "Out there. Where elsei"

  "What's in the bagi" The woman nodded toward it.

  "are you asking me or mugging mei"

  She hesitated, glanced at the policeman and then back at Sister Creep, and lowered the piece of glass. She stuck it through a sash tied around her waist. "I'm asking you. "

  "Burned bread, a couple of cans of anchovies, and some ham slices. " Sister Creep could almost see the young woman start salivating. She reached in and brought out the bread. "Here. Eat it in good health. "

  Beth tore off a chunk and handed the dwindling loaf to the policeman, who also gouged off some and stuffed it into his mouth as if it were God's manna. "Please," Beth said, and she reached for the ginger ale. Sister Creep obliged her, and by the time she and the policeman had both had a taste there were maybe three good swallows left. "all the water's contaminated," Beth told her. "One of us drank some from a puddle yesterday. He started throwing up blood last night. It took him almost six hours to die. I've got a watch that still works. Seei" She proudly showed Sister Creep her Timex; the crystal was gone, but that old watch was still ticking. The time was twenty-two minutes past eight.

  "One of us," she'd said. "How many more people are herei" Sister Creep asked.

  "Two more. Well, really one. The Spanish woman. We lost Mr. Kaplan last night - he drank the water. The boy died yesterday, too. and Mrs. Ivers died in her sleep. There are four of us left. "

  "Three," the policeman said.

  "Yeah. Right. Three of us left. The Spanish woman's down in the basement. We can't get her to move, and neither of us understand Spanish. Do youi"

  "No. Sorry. "

  "I'm Beth Phelps, and he's Jack. . . " She couldn't remember his last name and shook her head.

  "Jack Tomachek," he supplied.

  artie reintroduced himself, but Sister Creep said, "Why aren't you people up here instead of in the basementi"

  "It's warmer down there," Jack told her. "and safer, too. "

  "Saferi How's thati If this old building shifts again, it'll come down on your heads. "

  "We were up here yesterday," Beth explained. "The boy - he was about fifteen, I guess - was the strongest of us. He was Ethiopian or something, and he could only speak a little English. He went out to find food, and he brought back some cans of corned beef hash, cat food, and a bottle of wine. But. . . they followed him back here. They found us. "

  "Theyi" artie asked. "They whoi"

  "Three of them. Burned so bad you couldn't tell if they were men or women. They followed him back here, and they were carrying hammers and broken bottles. One of them had an axe. They wanted our food. The boy fought them, and the one with the axe. . . " She trailed off, her eyes glassy and staring at the orange flame of the lighter in her hand. "They were crazy," she said. "They. . . they weren't human. One of them cut me across the face. I guess I was lucky. We ran from them and they took our food. I don't know where they went. But I remember. . . they smelled like. . . like burned cheeseburgers. Isn't that funnyi That's what I thought of - burned cheeseburgers. So we went down into the basement to hide. There's no telling what other kinds of. . . of things are out there. "

  You don't know the half of it, Sister Creep thought.

  "I tried to fight them off," Jack said. "But I guess I'm not in fighting shape anymore. " He turned around, and both Sister Creep and artie flinched. Jack Tomachek's back from shoulders to waist was a scarlet, suppurating mass of burned tissue. He turned to face them again. "Worst fucking sunburn this old Polack ever got. " He smiled bitterly.

  "We heard you up here," Beth told them. "at first we thought those things had come back. We came up to listen, and we heard you eating. Listen. . . the Spanish woman hasn't eaten, either. Can I take her some breadi"

  "Take us to the basement. " Sister Creep got to her feet. "I'll open up the ham. "

  Beth and Jack led them into a hallway. Water was streaming down from above, forming a large black pool on the floor. Through the hallway, a flight of wooden stairs without a bannister descended into the darkness. The staircase shook precariously under their feet.

  It did seem warmer, if only by five or six degrees, in the basement, though exhaled breath was still visible. The stone walls were still holding together, and the ceiling was mostly intact but for a few holes that let rainwater seep through. This was an old building, Sister Creep thought, and they didn't put them up like this anymore. Stone pillars set at intervals supported the ceiling; some of those were riddled with cracks, but none of them had collapsed. Yet, Sister Creep told herself.

  "There she is. " Beth walked toward a figure huddled at the base of one of the pillars. Black water was streaming down right over the figure's head; she was sitting in a spreading pool of contaminated rain, and she was holding something in her arms. Beth's lighter went out. "Sorry," she said. "It gets too hot to hold, and I don't want to use up all the fluid. It was Mr. Kaplan's. "

  "What did you do with the bodiesi"

  "We took them away. This place is full of corridors. We took them way down to the end of one and left them. I. . . I wanted to say a prayer over them, but. . . "

  "But whati"

  "I forgot how to pray," she replied. "Praying. . . just didn't seem to make much sense anymore. "

  Sister Creep grunted and reached into her bag for the package of ham slices. Beth bent down and offered the bottle of ginger ale to the Spanish woman. Rainwater splattered her hand. "Here," she said. "It's something to drink. El drink-o. "

  The Spanish woman made a whimpering, crooning sound but didn't respond.

  "She won't move away from there," Beth said. "The water's getting all over her, and she won't move six feet to a dry place. Do you want foodi" she asked the Spanish woman. "Eat eati Christ, how can you live in New York City without knowing Englishi"

  Sister Creep got most of the plastic peeled away from the ham. She tore off a piece and bent on her knees beside Beth Phelps. "Use your lighter again. Maybe if she sees what we've got, we can pull her away from there. "

  The lighter flared. Sister Creep looked into the blistered but still pretty face of a Hispanic girl who was maybe all of twenty. Her long black hair was crisped on the end
s, and there were raw holes here and there on her scalp where circles of hair had been burned away. The woman paid no attention to the light. Her large, liquid brown eyes were fixed on what she cuddled in her arms.

  "Oh," Sister Creep said softly. "Oh. . . no. "

  The child was maybe three years old - a girl, with glossy black hair like her mother's. Sister Creep couldn't see the child's face. She didn't want to. But one small hand was rigidly curled as if reaching up for her mother, and the stiffness of the corpse in the woman's arms told Sister Creep that the child had been dead for some time.

  The water was leaking down through a hole in the ceiling, running through the Spanish woman's hair and over her face like black tears. She began to croon gently, lovingly rocking the corpse.

  "She's out of her mind," Beth said. "She's been like that since the child died last night. If she doesn't get out of that water, she's going to die, too. "

 
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ROBERT MCCAMMON SERIES:

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